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Nikola Petkov - Kevin Connolly

There is a tram line that connects my street in Brussels to the old summer palace of King Leopold II although it’s fair to say that his end of it is nicer than mine.


The tram rumbles and squeaks rather satisfyingly through the traffic, its warning bell as muffled and discreet as a dinner-gong struck by a deferential butler.


It is in its natural habitat in the dull but comfortable boulevards of brick town houses but seems to grow wary as the suburbs give way to the dense forests of the old royal hunting estates. Swaying on its winding track the tram seems to be feeling its way a little hesitantly to the palace gates, like a pampered pet dog finding its way  nervously across a jungle landscape.


Along the way, layers of Belgian history are peeled back.


There are the elegant gothic-revival homes of wealthy nineteenth=century merchants and the suburban villas where countries with more modest diplomatic ambitions in Belgium house their embassies.


There is a tram museum too. It tells you that so little has happened in the world of tram design and technology that a tram museum looks pretty much like a tram station. But it is still a message from history like all museums, even if it’s a rather muted one.


And at the end there is the summer palace of Leopold II at Tervuren which is said to resemble Versailles in the same way that Brussels resembles Paris. Which is to say, only rather slightly.




The palace has long been a museum telling the story of Belgium’s colonial history in Africa although it was closed for a long time in recent years while a way was sought to tell the story more honestly.


Belgium sees itself as a custodian of the treasures of African art – in the same way that a man who mugs you is the custodian of your wallet.


This is not, though, the story of that museum but of the man who once lived in the palace and who would not have enjoyed watching the riff and the raff queueing for ice-cream in his garden and inspecting his rich crop of other people’s property.


In appearance Leopold is the quintessential portly prince of the late nineteenth century – his enormous luxuriant beard makes him look like a bald man who’s pushed his head up through a tightly-packed bale of human hair.


He was unpopular during his own lifetime in part because after the death of his estranged queen he took up with a 16-year-old girl he met in Paris where she was working as a prostitute. He was 65.


But there are other reasons to disapprove of Leopold.


In the 1880s as the powers of Europe completed their scramble for Africa he personally secured Belgium’s place at the high table of world politics.


The last land to be described as ‘terra incognita’ on European maps he gathered into a huge fiefdom which he called Congo. It was not at first a colony of Belgium but rather the property of a company owned by Leopold himself.


His agent in the takeover process was Henry Morton Stanley the adventurer chiefly famous for leading a newspaper expedition to find the Scottish missionary David Livingston.


Stanley was brave and resourceful – as a young immigrant in the United States he’d managed to fight on both sides in the Civil War. But he was a shameless exploiter of the African tribal leaders with whom he dealt and was instrumental in turning Leopold’s Congo into the heart of darkness.


It’s hard to tell which of them was the bigger liar.


Leopold secretly paid offiicials to undo the deals that Stanley made, as ungenerous as they were.


And Stanley was a shameless embellisher of his own achievements – he never said ‘Dr Livingston I presume?’ when he encountered the missionary. He just realised a few years later that it would have been better if he had.


Leopold’s Congo became a place of shameful brutality – in villages which failed to produce their quotas of rubber the hands of men, women and children were amputated as a punishment.


This is not to exonerate the other colonial ventures of the period of course – they’re all based on the appropriation of the property of others and on absolute assumptions of superiority of one race or religion over another.


But Congo was a shock to the conscience of Europe and in 1908 a year before Leopold died it was removed from his control and made into a formal Belgian colony.


The ailing king had the last laugh though.

He married his young courtesan from Paris Caroline Lacroix on his death bed and transferred the vast wealth he’d expropriated from Congo to her rather than the Belgian State or indeed the rest of his family.


It was enough to make her one of the richest women in the world and indeed to seal Leopold’s reputation as one of Belgium’s less kindly remembered monarchs.


Congo – an immense repository of mineral wealth of every kind – had more dark chapters to endure but it finally became independent in 1960.


It feels like there’s a lot to think about on the ride home….the tram seems to cross infinite expanses of history and distance on the short journey back from Leopold’s house to mine.

Leopold - Kevin Connolly

What follows is not a spy story...just a story about a young man who read and remembered one.

But don’t stop listening if you LIKE spy stories...we will touch on heroism and espionage and treachery and death.

 

We begin in a second-hand bookshop in Dublin early in the 1980s.

 

I used to pop in once a week after work with the firm resolution to buy a volume of biography or history to help plug the gaping holes in my knowledge of the past.

 

And every week I’d emerge with a dog-eared old thriller, generally to be read in the fish and chip shop round the corner from the office.

 

Overall the two shops between them expanded my waistline more than my mind but one of the books made a lasting impression on me - and may even be the reason I left Ireland to live in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

 

The book was called ‘Judgement on Deltchev’ and was written by the English novelist Eric Ambler...a writer who deserves to be much better remembered and much more widely read. 

 

Everything he writes has a touch of life to it from the way a character carries too many pens in his top pocket to the moment in a conversation when you know someone is lying.

 

The heroes in most spy novels are right-thinking, straight-shooting flag waving chaps - James Bond, Richard Hannay or Bulldog Drummond.

 

Ambler’s are subtler.

 

They’re often ordinary travellers - engineers or businessmen - who through some kind of mis-chance find themselves caught up in dangerous events - the holidaymaker who realises his fellow-guest in a boarding house is an enemy agent, the salesman who’s passed a message meant for someone else that places his life in danger.

 

And in ‘Judgement on Deltchev’ the innocent who finds darkness swirling around him is a journalist - or at least a writer sent to report on one of the Eastern European show-trials of the 1940s.

 

These grim judicial farces were used to eradicate the opponents of the puppet regimes installed throughout the region by Stalin’s Soviet Union.

 

There was nothing new in using a mockery of a justice system to murder political opponents. Stalin had already killed very senior fellow Bolsheviks on trumped-up ideological charges....including Mikhail Bukharin who said on a trip to Paris that he couldn’t live outside the Soviet Union and then returned to Moscow to allow Stalin to demonstrate that he certainly couldn’t live INSIDE it.

 

It’s pretty clear if you read the book that Deltchev is really a Bulgarian politician called Nikola Petkov - there are plenty of similar figures sadly from that time and place but to me at least Ambler’s book has the feel of the Bulgarian capital Sofia about it.

 


I won’t spoil the book for you - except to say don’t get too attached to the brave but doomed Deltchev. 

In real life Nikola Petkov was a decent and determined democrat whose only mistake was to take seriously the election in which his Agrarian Party ran against the Moscow-backed Communists.

 

As an enemy of the people,  he learned that his parliamentary immunity counted for nothing when he was arrested inside the parliament building. It is said he was beaten to death with hammers before his dead body was hanged as a warning to anyone else thinking of running for office.

I’m slightly ashamed to say I hadn’t given Petkov a thought for a few years until I was back in Bulgaria a few weeks ago to write a piece about how corruption has produced a sudden startling erosion of freedom of the press there.  Brave and determined journalists who ask difficult questions are being fired, sometimes beaten up in the street.

 

It was unseasonably warm in the Balkans that week and while we were waiting for our guest in the garden of a cafe I looked up and noticed that a plaque on the wall commemorated the fact that Petkov had once lived in the building - lived there at the time of his murder in fact.

 

It is not much perhaps but it is a small act of revenge for a man whose enemies tried to eradicate him from history with such violence that no-one would dare to remember him. His memory, happily, will live longer than theirs.

 

So remember Eric Ambler certainly, champion of the forgotten and remember Nikola Petkov, doomed and determined democrat. And remember too Bulgaria which is taking longer than you might have hoped to struggle out of the darkness of the past into the full light of day.


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